The Fender Strat: What's All the Buzz (and Hum) About?
The Fabulous Fifties
The 1950s were great years...or so I'm told. Lassie and The Lone Ranger kept kids enthralled. White picket fences lined many streets. Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and John Wayne were larger than life. J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings was released amid some confused head scratching. World War II was finally over but eyes were turning to the Soviet Union and Korea. In what appears to have been a possible attempt to disturb the peace even further, Leo Fender introduced the world to the first mass-produced solidbody electric guitar, the Fender Broadcaster, in 1950. While not the first electric guitar in production, it was the first to truly shake the world.
After the release and success of the Gibson Les Paul in 1952, Fender got back to work and offered up a completely new, unique and off the wall guitar with the Fender Stratocaster- the guitar that would become the most sought after and copied guitar of all time.
Features and Design
The Strat certainly had a different look from other guitar options at the time of inception. While some accused the guitar of having "devil horns," it was simply a design to allow easier access to upper frets. Unlike the Telecaster and Les Paul, a contoured back made the Strat a more comfortable guitar when standing up or sitting down. The inclusion of a bridge with "tremolo action," although a misnomer, made the guitar completely different from anything else on the market.
While the Les Paul and Telecaster, at the time, both sported dual pickups, the Strat boasted three single coil pickups. The pickups worked hand in hand with a 3-way switch, giving you the choice of which pickup was in use. Strat tones are commonly referred to as bright, clean and mellow. In 1977, Fender added a 5-way switch and made some additional pickup tweaks, giving an additional two tones that are normally classified as "honky" or "quacky."
Instead of inserting the guitar cable in the lower bout of the guitar, the cable is inserted on top of the guitar. Similar to the Telecaster but unlike the Les Paul, the Strat had a neck bolted on to the body and a pickguard that houses the pickups and controls (one volume and two tone knobs), attached directly to the front of the guitar. The purpose, according to Leo Fender, was to create a guitar that could easily be modified or repaired with other available parts.
The Common Concern With Strats
No guitar is a be-all-end-all instrument, as most guitar players can attest. If you ask most guitarists what the chief concern with a Strat style guitar is, the most common response will be "annoying hum." While single coil pickups produce a highly coveted and unmatched tone, they also have a tendency to be quite noisy.
This phenomenon, referred to as "mains hum" or "60 cycle hum," is related to magnetic fields in the air and how those fields interact with the voltage used in conjunction with the guitar and amp. The dreadful buzz or hum heard is basically a tone in the 60 Hz range. Humbucking pickups- double coiled pickups common in Les Paul style guitars- are designed to cancel the noise, thus "bucking the hum" as the name implies.
Aside from converting the single coil pickups to humbuckers, Strat owners can also have the inner cavity of the guitar shielded with aluminum or copper to solve much of the problem or invest in a noise gate, such as the ISP Decimator, to reduce unwanted hum. While it's not a perfect solution, it certainly dampens the hum to moderate levels.
Fender, the First CBS Survivor
While the 50's were kind and the 60's started exceptional, Fender hit something of a snag after selling the company to CBS in 1965. While the 60's weren't considered horrendous by any stretch, quality started noticeably declining in the 70's and into the 80's under the management of CBS. Consistency in quality was a significant issue, as was the cost cutting methods incorporated into the hardware used. Aside from cost cutting, Fender redesigned the headstock to be larger and used three bolts to screw the neck to the body, instead of the traditional four, which caused instability in the neck's tension.
Fender was sold once again in 1985 to employees of the company and has made drastic steps through the years to improve quality and offer a wider variety of guitars from entry level to collectible.
If you were to compile a list of famous musicians who called the Fender Strat their guitar of choice, it would most likely pierce the stratosphere (pun intended) and reach the moon itself. If, however, you've not taken the time to notice, here is a list of a few notables:
Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour (Pink Floyd), Stevie Ray Vaughn, Bob Dylan, Buddy Holly, Buddy Guy, Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins), Rob Mayer, Eric Johnson
The Strat currently has a wide range of series in 2013. While they all share similar foundational features, key differences can be found among them:
- Standard- Mexican made, entry level Strat that is quite a bargain at the price of $499. Typical features for a Strat, with the inclusion of a vintage tremolo bridge and a modern shape neck. $499 is a great price for a true standard.
- Modern Player/Blacktop- Both the Modern Player and Blacktop Strats are newer entries into the Strat family. Both are budget friendly twists on the classic Strat, usually offering humbucking pickups as the primary pickup option. Most Strat versions are made in Mexico and some other models are made in Asia. Prices are $399-$499.
- Classic/Classic Player/Road Worn- Classic Players hearken back to a particular decade and offer features common for the time period. The 50's era comes with a V shape neck, 60's era with a C shape, 70's with a U shape. Colors tend to match the popular colors of the decade and headstocks match the decade shape as well. The Road Worn series share the same features but are purposefully aged to give them a more authentic antique look. Prices range from $799 to $899 and are made in Mexico.
- Deluxe- The Deluxe series share base features of the Standard model, with the addition of upgraded pickups. Most versions include a humbucking pickup in the bridge position and single coil pickups in the middle and neck position. Higher end versions include a piezo pickup in the bridge for acoustic tones, which gives the guitar a much more versatile tonal palette. Prices range from $599-$999 and are Mexican made.
- American Special- American made starts here. While these models boast superior workmanship, they lack the hardshell case you'd normally get with an American made Strat otherwise. Pickups are Texas Specials, a bit grittier with more bluesy bite to them. Higher quality hardware keeps you in better tune and noticeably preserves your tone. $899 is not a bad price for one of these.
- American Standard/Deluxe- While the American Standards come fitted with custom shop pickups, the Deluxe includes a humbucker in the bridge and noiseless single coil pickups as well. With a better bridge, hardware and electronics, more comfortable neck and thinner paint finish for added resonance, this is where the cream of the crop truly starts. Aside from your choice of rosewood or maple fretboard, you can also choose alder or ash body wood as well. Depending on features, you'll pay between $1199-$1699.
- Vintage Hot Rod- Something of a mediator between the American Standard and the Custom Shop, these models have new school pickups with old school feel otherwise. Nitrocellulose finishes keep them aging well as years pass. The '62 has a rosewood fretboard, while the '57 is maple. $1699.
- Artist- Taking the guitars of the stars and making them accessible to mere mortals, the Artist series has a wide range of guitars with wide ranging features. Each guitar is unique, from pickups, neck size, bridge appointments, finishes, etc. From $1599-$1899.
- Select- The Select series normally changes every year and features premium tonewoods, custom electronics, and is highly sought after. Each year the models/features are changed but each stands out for its beauty. Currently $2149.
- Custom Shop- Fender's Custom Shop is where dreams are made. Guitars range from Strats you can order by specific model number to completely unique creations all your own. A limited number of luthiers work within the Custom Shop and each guitar has limited exposure to human crafters. Within the Custom Shop there is also the signifier Master Built, which is a custom designed guitar created by only one luthier from start to finish. Custom Shop Strats normally start in the low $3000s and work their way up.
Imitation, the Sincerest Form of Flattery
Seeing as how the Strat is the most desired guitar on Earth and Fender only has trademark rights on the headstock shapes, an unimaginable amount of copies, clones and hot rods have surfaced through the years. Some manufacturers release what basically amounts to an exact Strat copy with their own original headstock design. Other manufacturers equip their guitars with more unique features, higher grade components and/or exotic woods than Fender, thus creating the term Super Strat.
The range of Strat clones on the market today is anywhere from ridiculously cheap 3/4 scale children's guitars to models that exceed what can be found in the Fender Custom Shop. Yamaha, Ibanez, Peavey and ESP are common brand names with Strat clones for beginner to intermediate musicians, while higher end manufacturers like Suhr, Sadowsky, Tyler, Grosh and Tom Anderson regularly draw professional musicians into the fold.
Let's be honest:
Just about any guitar player will quickly let you know one guitar is just not enough for the serious guitarist. Have a Les Paul? You need a Strat! Have a Telecaster? Why, you need a Strat. There are simply too many times on stage or in the studio when a Strat is the only guitar that will do, no exceptions whatsoever. As you can see, whatever budget you may be operating under, there is a Strat style guitar that is almost surely calling your name.
© 2013 Robert Allen Johnson